Alex Stein is a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School. Before joining Brooklyn, Alex was a Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School (2004-2016) and served for more than a decade at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law (1991-2004). He also held visiting professorial appointments at Alabama, Columbia, Miami, and Yale Law Schools. In Fall 2016, he visited Harvard Law School, where he taught Torts and a seminar on Medical Malpractice. Alex's specialty areas include Torts, Medical Malpractice, Evidence, as well as general legal theory and economic analysis of law. He authors three books, An Analytical Approach to Evidence (with Ronald J. Allen et al.) (6th ed. 2016); Foundations of Evidence Law (2005) and Tort Liability under Uncertainty (2001, with Ariel Porat), and over sixty articles of which many have appeared in leading journals. Alex was one of the founding editors of Theoretical Inquiries in Law and is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Evidence & Proof. In 2013, he launched an e-journal STEIN on Medical Malpractice, http://www.steinmedicalmalpractice.com, that covers all significant developments in medical malpractice laws across the United States. He graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and earned a Ph.D. from the University of London.
Two months ago, the Seventh Circuit has delivered another important decision with regard to medical malpractice actions filed against federally qualified health centers. Blanche v. United States, 811 F.3d 953 (7th Cir. 2016). See also Arteaga v. United States, 711 F.3d 828 (7th Cir. 2013), and Sanchez v. United States, 740 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2014), discussed here.
Such actions can only be filed in federal courts pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), but patients and – worse – their attorneys are often unaware of this fact. As a result, by the time they properly file a suit, the FTCA’s two-year limitations period expires and the patient’s cause of action against the United States becomes time barred. See 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). I call this problem “FTCA’s Trap for the Unwary.” To salvage the suit, the patient can petition for equitable tolling, but her chances of being granted equitable tolling are slim (in courts that still interpret the FTCA’s limitations provision as jurisdictional, those chances do not even exist). Continue reading →
The Colorado Supreme Court recently delivered an important decision on medical malpractice, P.W. v. Children’s Hospital Colorado, — P.3d —- (Colo. 2016), 2016 WL 297287. This decision denied a hospital the comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses that purported to shift to the patient the duty to eliminate or reduce the risk that the hospital was obligated to guard against.
The defendant hospital admitted a known suicidal patient to its secure mental health unit and placed him under high suicide-risk precautions. The hospital’s staff failed to follow those precautions by allowing the patient to be alone in a bathroom for twenty minutes. During these twenty minutes, the patient hanged himself with his scrub pants and suffered a devastating anoxic brain injury. Continue reading →
Witnesses have a general immunity against private suits in connection with their testimony (Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 345-46 (1983)). Perjury prosecution is their only fear. For expert witnesses testifying about their opinions rather than empirical facts, perjury prosecution is not even a viable prospect. Doctors testifying as experts in malpractice suits filed against their professional peers, however, may face disciplinary proceedings in medical associations to which they affiliate. The consequences of those proceedings for doctors can be quite devastating. They include expulsion and loss of job opportunities. Moreover, a negative finding against a doctor can impeach her as an expert witness in a subsequent court proceeding, which will make lawyers reluctant to retain her as an expert in the first place.
Yet, the only protection that those doctors get from the law is basic due process. All they are entitled to as defendants before their professional disciplinary board is a notice about the complaints or charges and the right to be heard and present evidence. Worse yet, violation of this basic due process right does not entitle the doctor to void the negative disciplinary finding automatically.
The recent Fifth Circuit decision, Barrash v. American Ass’n of Neurological Surgeons, Inc., — F.3d —- (5th Cir. 2016), 2016 WL 374134, is a case in point. Continue reading →
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut has recently delivered an important decision that opens up new possibilities for suing hospitals and clinics. This decision allowed a patient alleging that hospital employees injected her with a contaminated medication to sue the hospital in products liability. Gallinari v. Kloth, — F.Supp.3d —- (U.S.D.C. D.Conn. 2015), 2015 WL 7758835. Continue reading →
Georgia’s Supreme Court has recently delivered an important decision interpreting the “emergency room” doctrine: Nguyen v. Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C., — S.E.2d —-, 2015 WL 6631964 (Ga. 2015). Anyone interested in medical malpractice law should know about that decision. Continue reading →
Every defendant in a suit for medically inflicted injuries wants to be a “healthcare provider.” This status entitles the defendant to categorize the suit as “medical malpractice” and become eligible to special litigation advantages, which include shortened limitations and repose periods, dismissal of suits not verified by experts, and statutory caps on damages.
In Verticor, Ltd. v. Wood, — S.W.3d —- 2015 WL 7166024 (Tex.App.–Austin 2015), the manufacturer of Eclipse Shield – a spinal implant for fusion – claimed to be a “healthcare provider” for purposes of the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA). The purpose of this claim was to recharacterize the products liability action filed against Verticor into a “healthcare liability claim” that can proceed to court only upon showing of medical malpractice verified by an expert. To establish this claim, Verticor argued that it provides the Eclipse Shield “for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient’s medical care, treatment, or confinement” under its “device manufacturer” license. This service, explained Verticor, makes it a “healthcare provider.” Continue reading →
Bill of Health bloggers Alex Stein and Dov Fox have just filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of U.S. Air Force Major Heather Ortiz and her baby, who were denied legal remedies for obstetric malpractice by military doctors that left the baby with severe brain damage. The case is No. 15-488 Ortiz v. U.S. ex rel. Evans Army Community Hospital. Professors Fox and Stein urge the Court to overturn the Tenth Circuit’s holding that the federal government’s immunity against liability for intramilitary torts extends to wrongful injuries like those sustained by Major Ortiz’s baby. They argue that this holding misinterprets the immunity, misapplies the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), and constitutes no less than unconstitutional sex discrimination. Fox and Stein explain:
When a civilian spouse of a serviceman receives negligent prenatal care from military doctors and delivers an injured baby as a result of that malpractice, there is no question that Feres immunity does not apply and that the baby can sue the United States under the FTCA. When military medical malpractice injures the baby of a servicewoman, this baby should be equally able to obtain redress under the FTCA. A system that would single out the civilian children of servicewomen for adverse treatment discriminates against women who serve in the armed forces. . . To interpret the FTCA as the Tenth Circuit did permits discrimination between these two classes of similarly situated victims of military malpractice and violates fundamental principles of equal protection.
Ex parte Vanderwall, — So.3d —- 2015 WL 5725153 (Ala. 2015), is a new important decision that defined “medical malpractice” to identify suits adjudicated under special defendant-friendly rules. As I explained here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and in a foundational article on the subject, categorizing a suit as sounding in “medical malpractice”—as opposed to “ordinary negligence,” “assault” or “battery”—determines whether the plaintiff must satisfy rigid limitations and repose provisions, comply with special requirements with regard to expert testimony, face the difficult burden of proving the defendant’s deviation from professional customs, and, in the end, suffice herself with the compensation amount limited by the statutory cap on damages.
In Vanderwall, this categorization determined whether a patient could use past instances of sexual misconduct incidental to medical treatment to prove that the therapist responsible for that misconduct sexually assaulted her as well. Continue reading →
Bad news for Nevada’s victims of medical malpractice. This state’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages as limiting recovery for all kinds of victims and injuries. Tam v. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., — P.3d —- , 2015 WL 5771245 (Nev. 2015). Moreover, the Court held that the cap applies per incident, which encompasses all mistakes that the doctor may have made in delivering a single treatment to a patient and all the victims of those mistakes (such as twins born with birth defects as a result of negligent prenatal care or delivery). For my discussion of the “per incident” and alternative approaches to caps, see here. Continue reading →
My colleague, Professor Tony Sebok, drew my attention to an important recent decision, Looney v. Moore, 2015 WL 4773747 (N.Dist.Ala. 2015, by Chief United States District Judge Karon O. Bowdre). This decision adjudicated a textbook lost-chance case that involved the effects of oxygen saturation levels (SpO2) in premature infants with extremely low birth weights (ELBW). For any such infant, high SpO2 levels involved (among other complications) the risk of blindness caused by retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). On the other hand, low levels of SpO2 could lead to life-threatening neurodevelopmental impairments (NDI). The neonatologists’ customary practice was to maintain SpO2 levels in ELBWs between 85% and 95%. The effects of variations within that nationally accepted range were hitherto unknown.
To find out what those effects are, the defendants conducted a clinical trial. They divided the nationally accepted range of SpO2 levels into a high range (90%- 95%) and a low range (85%-90%). Infants whose parents agreed to participate in that trial—all having an extremely low birth weight—were randomly placed in either of the two groups. By making that division, the defendants tracked the infants’ rates of NDI, on one side, and ROP, on the other side.
Whether a medical publication – a book or an article – can be used in court as evidence for its truth is determined by the “learned treatise” exception to the hearsay rule. This exception provides that a court can admit into evidence an excerpt from a treatise or periodical when it “is called to the attention of an expert witness on cross-examination or relied on by the expert on direct examination” and when “the publication is established as a reliable authority by the expert’s admission or testimony, by another expert’s testimony, or by judicial notice.” Federal Rule of Evidence 803(18) and its state equivalents.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has recently narrowed this exception. Continue reading →
“Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?” is an issue that will stay on the courts’ agenda for long. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
As I explained in these posts and in a foundational article on medical malpractice, categorizing a plaintiff’s action as “medical malpractice” rather than “ordinary negligence” determines whether it must satisfy rigid limitations and repose provisions, comply with special and costly requirements with regard to expert testimony, face the difficult burden of proving the defendant’s deviation from the medical profession’s customary practices and protocols, and suffice itself with the compensation amounts allowed by the statutory caps on damages.
A recent Florida court decision, Shands Teaching Hosp. & Clinics v. Estate of Lawson, — So.3d —- 2015 WL 5057325 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), illustrates the centrality of this issue for suits complaining about a psychiatric hospital’s neglect. Continue reading →
A week ago, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has delivered an important decision on whether uninsured practice of medicine is actionable in torts. Jarrell v. Kaul, — A.3d —- 2015 WL 5683722 (N.J. 2015). This decision involved an uninsured anesthesiologist who allegedly provided negligent pain management treatment to a patient. Under New Jersey statute, N.J.S.A. 45:9–19.17; N.J.A.C. 13:35–6.18(b), a physician’s license to practice medicine is only valid when she holds medical-malpractice liability insurance in the requisite amounts. Continue reading →
All expert requirements for medical malpractice actions (including merit certificates and affidavits) are categorized as “substantive” rather than “procedural” under both Erie (in diversity suits) and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). See here and here. The Fifth Circuit recently ruled in connection with a medical malpractice suit filed under FTCA that the “common knowledge” exception to the expert testimony requirement is “substantive” as well. Bush v. United States — F.3d —- 2015 WL 5472491 (5th Cir. 2015) (hereinafter: Bush). State law (Virginia law, in Bush) consequently trumps the federal law of evidence and procedure. Continue reading →
Georgia’s Court of Appeals recently categorized a clinic’s front-desk person’s failure to communicate a patient’s complaints to the doctors as ordinary negligence rather than medical malpractice. Wong v. Chappell, 773 S.E.2d 496 (Ga.App. 2015).
This categorization has four important implications:
First, it allows an aggrieved patient to file her suit and proceed to trial without obtaining expert testimony and a preliminary affidavit (or certificate of merit) from a qualified physician.
Second, it frees plaintiffs from the stringent limitations and repose rules that apply in medical malpractice actions. Continue reading →
If you are familiar with about a thousand medical malpractice decisions and can’t think of an accident that might surprise you, read Stayton v. Delaware Health Corporation, — A.3d —- 2015 WL 3654325 (Del. 2015). Another reason for reading this new decision of the Delaware Supreme Court is that it has delivered an important precedent: the Court decided that the collateral source rule does not cover medical costs written off by Medicare. Continue reading →
Whether a litigant’s right to conduct informal ex parte interviews with fact witnesses extends to the plaintiffs’ treating physicians, given the confidentiality provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), is a question of considerable practical importance. This question has recently received a positive answer from the Kentucky Supreme Court in Caldwell v. Chauvin, — S.W.3d —-, 2015 WL 3653447, (Ky. 2015), after “percolating through state courts, federal district courts, and academic circles for a decade.” Id. at *5. Continue reading →
Proving decision-causation in a suit for informed-consent violation is never easy. Things get even worse when a trial judge misinterprets the criteria for determining – counterfactually – whether the patient would have agreed to the chosen treatment if she were to receive full information about its benefits, risks, and alternatives. The recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision, White v. Beeks, — S.W.3d —- 2015 WL 2375458 (Tenn. 2015), is a case in point. Continue reading →
When Congress enacted the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) in 1946, it did not envisage that its formulation of the federal government’s liability will allow members of the military forces to sue the United States for service-related noncombatant injuries. The Supreme Court closed this gap in Feres v. United States, 340 U.S. 135 (1950). It held that FTCA did not waive the government’s immunity from tort liability for members of the military and supported that interpretation by a number of reasons. First and most important, FTCA made the government liable in torts according to state laws that do not – and are not authorized to – govern the distinctly federal relationship between the government and its armed forces. Second, Congress has established a uniform compensation scheme for injured and fallen soldiers (the Veterans Benefit Act, 38 U.S.C. §§ 301, et seq.). Four years later, in United States v. Brown, 348 U.S. 110 (1954), the Court rationalized Feres as protecting military discipline as well.
Based on these rationales, the Court subsequently decided that Feres also protects the government against suits for derivative harms sustained by civilians. Specifically, it held that when a military person’s “injury incident to service” is the “genesis” of a civilian’s harm, the civilian cannot sue the government. Stencel Aero Engineering Corp. v. United States, 431 U.S. 666 (1977).
Many of us are familiar with the “California Effect.” California’s hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emission standards for cars are more stringent than the federal EPA standards and more costly to comply with. Yet, California’s emission standards have become the national standard since automobile manufacturers have found it too expensive to produce cars with different emission systems – one for California and another for other states – and, obviously, did not want to pass up on California, the biggest car market in the nation.
Such regulatory spillover may also occur in the abortion regulation area as a consequence of the legislative reforms implemented by South Dakota and thirteen other states. These reforms include statutory enactments that require doctors to tell patients that abortion might lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and even to suicide. Failure to give this warning to a patient violates the patient’s right to informed consent and makes the doctor liable in torts. Continue reading →